Going cable-free is the in thing. We’ve tested 14 devices designed to de-wire your life!
Households and offices in the US and Europe crested the wireless wave a couple of years ago. The wave has struck our shores more recently. While we cannot deny the fact that cables are still very much the preferred means for data communications today, Wi-Fi, both as a technology and as a means to communicate has made strong inroads in our comparatively emerging market.
To the home user, Wi-Fi a.k.a. Wireless Fidelity represents convenience in its simplest sense. Freedom from sitting in front of your PC and surfing, when you could be in bed, chatting with your significant other and your friends online simultaneously! The biggest advantage of Wi-Fi is, of course, freedom from ugly, restricting wires. Your kids could be surfing the Net for school projects while you browse on your laptop, lounging in your lawn chair.
The first challenge you’ll face before going cable-free will be to decide what sort of wireless device to buy. Wi-Fi ADSL Routers offer all the functionality of a regular wireless router in addition to having ADSL modems inbuilt. Regular Wi-Fi Routers offer multiple connectors, and some even offer USB connectivity. An Access Point is quite simply meant to provide a wireless network without routing functions. What type of Wi-Fi device you require depends on your need as always. Do you just want to enable Net browsing on your laptop or Wi-Fi enabled PDA? Do you need to transfer data from laptop to desktop without cable hassles? You may need an Access Point (AP) in such cases. Do you plan to setup a small SoHo network, combining two or three PCs with a couple of laptops wirelessly? In such a case, you should invest in a Wi-Fi router. Whatever your need, there’s always a solution to it. This is where we come in! Just so that you can make an informed decision, we’ve torture-tested 14 Wi-Fi devices.
Wi-Fi ADSL Routers
Amongst the wireless routers we received, just two were ADSL-ready: the Netgear DG834G and the ASUS WL-600G were the only two routers with ADSL modems inbuilt. Such routers are your first choice if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides you with a telephone line based broadband connection. Most telecom-based companies such as MTNL and Airtel will provide you with ADSL connectivity (RJ11-based). When getting such a connection, you are generally given the option of either purchasing your own modem or buying one from the ISP.
Now if you have a laptop or any wireless devices that you might want to share this Internet connection with, it’s probably your best bet to invest in a Wi-Fi ADSL router. As you’ll see from our tests, Wi-Fi ADSL routers offer extra features without compromising on performance. To top it off, they’re not as expensive as you’d perceived them to be!
Features, performance, and looks collide…
The stunning WL-600G would grace any workspace it occupies, meriting at least a second glance! Build quality’s excellent, and this was the only router with a convenient power on/off switch.
The WL-600G is a feature-rich offering, with two USB ports, and the ability to set up a print server. Its firmware interface has a few more settings available for tweaking, as compared to the other ASUS devices we tested.
The scores this one brought up weren’t the highest we got, but what blew us away were the signal strength figures, especially in Zones 2 and 3.
At 54 per cent in Zone 2, it’s a whopping 8 per cent stronger than its closest rival, the Senao ECB3220.
Even in Zone 3, the WL-600G hammers everything around with a signal strength of 49 per cent!
This one has a lot of features, but the high price tag of Rs 8,500 will not please everyone.
Sleek and fast
The pearl-white coloured Netgear DG834G is a sleek beauty. The activity indicators are also well-done, and clearly legible even under well-lit conditions.
We set this one up in a jiffy, thanks to the great firmware interface. Netgear also helpfully provides very detailed help for each option, and each item is very well explained. In fact, the help is so detailed, you could use it as a ready reference for what each option means.
The DG834G breezed through most of our tests, clocking the fastest time in our Zone 2 multiple file transfer, averaging a blazing 1.09 MBps. This router will be very suitable for a SoHo user who wants to transfer a lot of data wirelessly. It’s equally at ease browsing bandwidth-hogging Web pages.
At Rs 4,230, the DG834G keeps your wallet happy… very happy, considering the features and the fact that it’s blazingly fast.
We received seven such devices. The difference between these and their ADSL counterparts is they don’t have ADSL modems inbuilt. They cannot therefore utilise an RJ11 WAN connection. Most routers will have an RJ45 interface for WAN connections.
Tiny but mighty!
The “small wonder” in this test, it’s small enough to be stuffed inside your cargo trouser pockets, yet powerful enough to ensure a near-seamless unwired experience.
The activity LEDs are, surprisingly, mounted behind the device and on top. We’d have preferred them in front, or at least where they can be viewed easily even if the device is kept above the user’s line of sight.
ASUS’ software definitely isn’t the best laid-out that we tested, and neither is the main menu very intuitive.
Due to its tiny footprint, we’d recommend it to the hotspot browser on the move. Its speed of 1.29 MBps was unmatched in the Zone 1 test. This makes it suitable for setting up a home or SoHo wireless office where its potent data throughput capabilities will be put to good use. It excelled in the video streaming test as well, meaning you needn’t sit in front of your PC’s monitor if you own one of these.
At Rs 4,400, the WL-530G offers excellent value for money. If you’re looking for the fastest Wi-Fi router out there, grab the WL-530G—it’s our Best Buy Gold winner!
Buffalo WHR-HP-AG108 “Air Station”
Great show with the go!
The AG108 exemplifies build quality. It’s a great looker, and that grey-and-silver body will look smart on your desk, and equally so atop your bedroom armoire! It sported the biggest (physically) antenna we’ve seen on a Wi-Fi router. It was also the only router we received with 802.11a compliance. This means the AG108 can simultaneously create a 5 GHz (802.11a) and a 2.4 GHz network (802.11b/g). It even utilises a technique Buffalo calls “Channel Bonding” to increase throughput by clubbing the available bandwidth (of both the 5 and 2.4 GHz networks) together.
The device sports an AOSS button (Air station One-touch Secure System). Very simply, this button automatically assigns WPA keys to all clients on the wireless network, once you’ve installed the software on each of them. You’ll also have to click the Profiles tab. Incidentally, the AG108 has a good firmware interface, and is easy to navigate even for first time users.
The AG108 performed decently in all the tests, save one—our video streaming test—where, for some reason, we got some framing.
The Air Station AG108 is a good product with a lot of add-on features, but there other products available that outperform it on all fronts.
Compex NetPassage 27G
With four RJ45 (LAN) ports in addition to two USB ports, connectivity is never going to be a bottleneck with the NP-27G. It has an inbuilt print server, making it ideal for the SoHo segment.
The NP27G incorporates the Atheros XR (eXtended Range) technology, which improves coverage area of a Wi-Fi network, eliminating dead spots. Atheros XR also supports a stronger signal than what 802.11 specifications imply, and supports additional data transfer rates.
The software interface on the NP27G firmware was the best we’ve seen this time round. It’s very intuitive, and each option is properly placed under a relevant subcategory.
Configuring the NP27G was very easy via the interface, and even a newbie shouldn’t have too many problems during the setup.
Though the NP27G’s transfer rates weren’t the slowest in our tests, it was very close to the bottom. Surprisingly, it fared decently in the movie streaming test: although the video was jerky at times, it wasn’t as bad as we’d expected. The NP27G loses out on performance but scores on features. It is reasonably priced at Rs 5,500.
Compex NetPassage 28G
Feature-laden—but light on performance!
With three LAN ports and four USB ports, the NP 28G is primarily aimed at the SoHo segment. Home users will also benefit, especially if you want to hook up a printer or even a Web camera (courtesy the extra USB ports). Atheros’ XR makes another appearance here. The firmware is identical to that of the excellent NP-27G.
The NP 28G is slightly slower than the NP27G, but only by a hairsbreadth! They perform similarly when the AP is in the client’s vicinity. Once the distance increases—and signal attenuation occurs—we see the NP 27G creeping ahead.
This shows that the NP 28G is less suitable for heavy bandwidth inter-room usage. The streaming test also did not complet to our satisfaction, and there was noticeable framing.
Overall, a good feature set at an outrageous price—Rs 8,500—especially considering its less-than-ideal performance.
Level One WAP-0010
A decent performer
The WAP 0010 is a funky looker with a sober grey body, getting a slash of silver in the form of its logo embossed topside. With three antennas and MIMO support, we had high hopes for this product in our test.
Coming to the firmware, there’s no username field; you need to type in a password in the field titled “login”. We found all the settings under appropriate heads, and most of the deeper settings were transparent, allowing us to tweak them to our heart’s content.
Unfortunately, no amount of tweaking helped it perform well! To compare it to the proverbial tortoise would be unfair, as there were slower competitors in the test. Needless to say, if you’re looking at bandwidth-hungry data transfers and movie streaming, give the WAP-0010 a wide berth.
The WRT300N is a stylish, futuristic-looking router that supports the yet-to-be-announced 802.11n standard (Pre-n as of now). Its dark grey, black and smoky blue body will turn eyes, as will the radar-looking antenna booster.
The WRT300N brims over with features that can be accessed from its intuitive firmware menu. The WRT300N also supports MIMO, which helps maximise signal coverage while reducing occurrences of dead spots within its effective range.
We expected a lot from this model, it being the only Pre-n device that made it to this test. As you’ll see in our table, it brought up some solid scores, but nothing worth cheering about. It was well and truly beaten by some of the other routers—in particular the ASUS WL-530G and the Netgear DG834G.
The WRT300N remains a good choice for the home segment because of its plethora of features and the fact that it’s future-proof.
Performance you don’t pay a wad for!
The WRT54G is a simple, no-nonsense looking router that sports twin antennas. The firmware is as intuitive as that on the WRT300N. The minus point is immediately evident—there’s no logout button; you simply have to close your browser window after saving settings (in case you’ve changed any). We weren’t able to check from the interface whether our two laptops were connected. For that, we had to filter the MAC address list to show the clients connected. A couple of things missing in the interface; not of great use to home users, but a SoHo would miss them. Incidentally, the WRT54G loses out on Wireless Bridging as a feature.
While it outpaces the WRT300N in the Zone 1 tests, it lags behind in Zone 2. This shows its signal quality is slightly inferior, because signal strength of the models in Zone 2 was identical. Where this one scores is in pricing; it costs just Rs 3,634, and you’ll get why the Digit Best Buy Silver award goes to the WRT54G.
How We Tested
Testing Wireless devices involves gauging performance on mainly two fronts—transfer rates (speed) and effective range.
Our Wi-Fi test was done simulating all possible real-world conditions, for which we created the test “zones” we’ve described below. Please note that distances aren’t important for benchmarking any sort of Wi-Fi network; it’s the obstructions between the Access Point (AP) and the signal recipient that ultimately matters. Metallic objects, wooden cabinets, concrete walls, and general furniture all cause what is called attenuation of wireless signals. The signal strength is reduced, which causes loss of data integrity and therefore slows down data throughput. With this in mind, we designed each of these zones to actually take each of these wireless devices to their performance limits.
Zone 1: The laptop was placed within 15 feet of the AP. There was a wooden partition between the AP and the client, though they were essentially in the same room. SIgnal attenuation was at a minimum.
Zone 2: We placed the laptop within 25 feet of the router. This time we ensured there were a good deal of signal-obstructing objects. There was a concrete wall (with inbuilt cupboards) in between the Wi-Fi devices to further scramble reception. This was in addition to a couple of wooden partitions.
Zone 3: Our test laptop was placed approximately 30 feet away from the router. Here we actually moved the laptop to a higher floor. We also ensured the laptop wasn’t exactly above the router placed a level below (this would be too easy). This was the most strenuous test for the routers, as multiple obstructions create ample cause for attenuation and hence signal loss.
We created test files to be copied from the PC to the laptop wirelessly. In each Zone we used two different files. One was a single RAR archive, while the other was a set of small files of various types to simulate every possible data transfer scenario. The file sizes were kept the same in the same Zone, but sizes across Zones varied—100 MB for Zone 1, 50 MB for Zone 2, and 25 MB for Zone 3. The speeds were recorded in Megabytes per second (MBps). Please note that most manufacturers quote figures in Megabits per second (Mbps). Keep in mind that 1 byte equals 8 bits.
Next we streamed an HD video file encoded at 1280 x 720 (720p). This clip was on our test PC’s hard disk, and was streamed to first one, and then two, laptops. We awarded points based on the entire viewing experience. In case any jerking of frames was really noticeable, points were deducted accordingly. A score in excess of 7.5/10 means the device is capable of providing a good movie-watching experience.
Finally, we used Wireless Mon version 2.0 as a benchmarking tool to measure signal strength in each of the Zones.
In our signal strength at 20 metres test, we ensured there were two concrete walls between the AP and the test laptop. Wireless Mon was our benchmark of choice here as well.
Test Rig Specifications
|PC ||Laptop 1||Laptop 2|
|Processor||AMD x2 4800||Pentium M 1.73 GHz||Pentium M 1.2 GHz|
|Motherboard||AMD x2 4800||Intel 915GMS ||Intel 915GMS|
|Memory||512 MB x 2 Corsair XMS DDR 400||512 MB DDR2 533||512 MB DDR2 533|
|Graphics card||XFX Geforce 7900GTX||Intel Integrated 915GM||Intel Integrated 915GM|
| HDD ||Hitachi T7K 250 SATA 2.0||Toshiba 80 GB 4200 rpm||Fujitsu 60 GB 4200 rpm|
|Wi-Fi Solution||NA||Intel Integrated||Intel Integrated|
Five Access Points (APs) competed in our test. An AP is the simplest way to set up a Wi-Fi network at home. It’s convenient to connect a single laptop to a PC. SoHos should look elsewhere, because APs typically have just a single RJ45 connect.
Cool looker, light performer
The ASUS WL-320G is wall-mountable; since it doesn’t have rubber foot pegs it will move easily if kept on a surface. It’s well built, though, and the activity LEDs are well-placed and clearly legible.
ASUS has incorporated a high-speed mode on this model—Afterburner. The client device also needs to support it, in which case performance is boosted. Fancy titles aside, the WL-320G was a very mediocre performer, and that’s putting it mildly. It was the slowest in our Zone 1 multiple file transfer test, clocking in the vicinity of 400 seconds.
Not surprisingly, the lower data throughput on the WL-320G led to some jerks during our movie streaming test. Although it wasn’t downright unwatchable, we wouldn’t suggest the WL-320G for this specific purpose, especially at the steep price of Rs 8,900.
An AP not worth accessing!
The third in the Compex trio to be received was a simple AP—no routing capabilities here.
The WP54G supports PoE (Power over Ethernet). Although PoE implementations differ greatly between manufacturers, the basic principle remains the same (see box Wi-Fi Demystified).
The WP54G lagged behind in quite a few tests, especially in Zone 3, where it was thrashed by the competition. In fact, data transfer was interrupted once, due to a loss in signal integrity.
Video streaming, as we’d expected, was abysmal—jerking, and lots of interruptions. We don’t recommend the WP54G as an AP, despite the inclusion of PoE—simply because of its inadequate performance. Its price tag of Rs 5,950 won’t garner any accolades either.
Wi-Fi: An acronym for Wireless Fidelity, Wi-Fi quite simply denotes “Wireless Networks” that conform to IEEE (International Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards. The Wireless standard accepted by the IEEE is 802.11. The most common Wi-FI standards within 802.11 are 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11 Super g, and 802.11
Gateway: A gateway is responsible for proper data flow and distribution within a network and externally to other networks. The gateway machine is also called the host computer or network router.
SSID: Service Set Identifier or simply “Network Name” is the name (typically alphanumeric) by which a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) identifies itself. To communicate with any devices on a wireless network, all wireless devices must use the same SSID. The SSID can be kept private, in which case a user who doesn’t know the SSID cannot gain access to that network.
WEP: Acronym for Wired Equivalent Privacy. This was the earliest security method adopted by the 802.11 standard, providing 64- and 128-bit keys (hexadecimal coded) to protect wireless devices from unwanted intrusion.
WPA/WPA2: An acronym for Wireless Protected Access, which is a more secure method of protecting data transmission than WEP. WPA 2 is a newer protocol. It’s also known as 802.11i.
DHCP: Acronym for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. It’s a communications protocol that automatically assigns IP addresses to clients logging on to a TCP/IP network.
MAC Address: An acronym for Media Access Control Address. It’s a unique identifier for an individual node on a Wi-Fi network. It is represented as a string of six pairs of hex characters, for example, FF.EE.FF.FF.00.FF
NAT: An acronym for Network Address Translation, it’s basically a firewall feature. NAT is available on most routers today, both wired and otherwise. NAT enables individual IPs of clients on a network LAN to remain invisible beyond the LAN, and any external communication occurs through the gateway machine. Packets of data recieved by the gateway machine are then routed to the clients that requested them. In case the packet received doesn’t correspond with a request sent by a machine on a network, it is rejected.
Port Mapping: Port Mapping or Port Address Translation is the process of translating and routing packets arriving at a particular IP address or port to another IP address. Port Mapping bypasses NAT.
Deep Packet Inspection: Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) is a form of packet filtering that inspects the data portion of data packets as opposed to just checking the header portion. DPI is basically an evolved form of SPI (Stateful Packet Inspection).
PoE (Power over Ethernet): This describes the ability to transmit power as well as data to devices over an Ethernet cable. PoE is extremely useful in cases where the AP is placed in an area with no power point.
Slowcoach to Wi-Fi town…
The DWL-2100AP is well-built, sturdy, but light. It’s also wall-mountable; a complete kit is provided. D-Link’s firmware interface is good, but not as well laid-out as on the Compex products. The manual that accompanies this device is more informative than that that came with the other brands.
We were disappointed to see the scores on the DWL-2100AP. At 0.12 MBps it’s a whopping 500 per cent slower than the ASUS WL-530G when it comes to transferring files across relatively larger distances!
Although it was faster than the Compex trio while transferring single large files, it lagged behind while transferring a bunch of smaller files. The movie streaming test also saw this AP trail behind what is acceptable for watching seamless video.
It’s not suitable for file transfers or movie streaming if you intend to set up your server and client on different floors, or if the distance between AP and client is anything over
15 feet. At a price of Rs 3,990, you’d be better off buying the blazingly fast WL-530G, which throws in routing capabilities as well.
The best access point out there!
The WAT54G is the AP equivalent of the WRT54G. Instead of just dropping out a few features (which it does), the WAT54G adds one: bridging capabilities. Besides the lack of the four RJ45 connects at the rear, the two devices look identical!
The firmware interface is identical to that of the WRT54G, aside from the lack of routing functions.
The WAT54G smoked the competition in our data transfer tests—its 0.66 and 0.53 MBps in Zone 1 (single and multiple file respectively) are faster than those of either of its brethren. Curiously, the WAT54G was actually faster in Zone 2—0.67 and 0.56 MBps, as compared to Zone 1. We ran our tests again just to be sure; while the results weren’t identical (wireless transfers rarely are), they were consistent.
The WAT54G is a great access point, very deserving of accolades. We recognize this and reward Linksys on a great product with our Digit Best Buy Gold award.
A Decision Maker
|You Want||You Need||We Recommend|
|Wireless connectivity to your laptop from your desktop PC||An Access Point (AP)||Linksys WAT54G|
|To set up a small home network, between two PCs and your laptop or Wi-Fi enabled PDA||A Wireless Router||ASUS WL-530G, Linksys WRT54G|
|To stream movies from your PC’s hard drive to your laptop(s) wirelessly||A Wireless Router/ AP||ASUS WL-530G, Senao ECB-3220|
|To set up a small office network wirelessly, complete with a network printer||A Wireless Router||ASUS WL-600G, Compex NP27G|
|An ADSL modem and a wireless router for a broadband connection, perferably wireless-enabled||A Wireless ADSL Router||Netgear DG834G, ASUS WL-600G|
Tips For A Better Signal
2.4 GHz is the frequency used by most Wi-Fi devices. Unfortunately, this frequency is rather common: it’s used by a few household devices, namely cordless phones and microwaves. Any Bluetooth device will also interfere with Wi-Fi signals, as will a cordless mouse.
Here are some common signal-scramblers. Every household will have most of these.
Plasterboard wall: 3dB
Glass wall with metal frame: 6dB
Wooden partition: 4dB
Office window: 3dB
Metal door: 6dB
Metal door in brick wall: 12.4dB
Now you know what happened to that signal! We’re assuming average thickness here. The thicker you go, the lower your signal strength becomes. You cannot avoid attenuation from most of these materials, but knowing what material absorbs what may help you better position the router/AP.
3. Up, up and away
Heights are good, especially for wireless devices. Your router could even be mounted on top of a cupboard (just ensure it’s away from walls if possible). Creating a little cradle mount dangling from your ceiling would be better. For a PCI wireless card, the metal cabinet and components will cause attenuation. No way to avoid this, but keeping your cabinet on a table (as opposed to on the floor) will help reception. PCMCIA cards in laptops will have the most problems with signals, and it’s better to use the integrated Wi-Fi solution, as the antenna will probably extend into the screen area.
4. Higher gain does not necessarily mean a better signal
Higher gain means the signal is concentrated more in a particular direction. Note that the power supplied remains unchanged, just that the same amount of energy (beam) is focused in a much tighter area. Higher gain antennas therefore provide more focused signal beams. They’re better for large open areas, and may be less effective in case the site has a lot of attenuation-creating walls,
5. Other attenuating culprits
Tinted windows will absorb a lot of your wireless signal. Note that regular glass windows will not. Even wire meshes and metal grilles will absorb signals like crazy. The degree of attenuation may be as much as what a solid metal object causes.
By polarisation here, we mean the relation between the physical orientation of each antenna and the electric field that is parallel to the antenna. Omni-directional antennas have vertical polarisations due to the fact that they’re meant to stand vertically. This is why most PCMCIA cards don’t perform well in tandem with them (remember they slot into your laptop horizontally).
Senao ECB 3220
A Bridge for all occasions
Senao’s ECB 3220 is positioned as a wireless bridge while also functioning as an AP. In fact, in keeping with its primary function (bridge), the ECB 3220 had the best signal in Zone 2, and just missed top spot in Zone 3. It’s wall mountable.
Although Senao’s firmware is reasonably laid out, it lacks detailed help on some settings. The basics are covered well though, but we had a few problems setting it up.
The ECB 3220s a steady performer. It didn’t lose reception at all throughout the tests, even while moving between Zones—except while moving up the staircase to Zone 3.
You should know that all the devices in this test, with the exception of the ASUS Wl-600G, lost reception while the laptop was being moved between zones. This tells us that the ECB 3220 has a very strong signal.
Carrying a price tag of Rs 8,280, the ECB 3220 is as expensive as an AP. However, because of its powerful signal, office users will find it useful as a bridge between two wireless networks. We’re awarding it our Best Buy Silver award.
Throughout these tests, we hope one thing’s become crystal clear… wireless devices, though offering freedom from wires, cannot sustain anywhere near the high data transmission rates that good old Ethernet can. However, Wi-Fi as a technology has matured sufficiently to allow us to surf the Net and stream audio and video sans the discomfort. And we’re talking discomfort from iffy connections, sporadic transmission problems, loss of signal, etc. 54 Mbps may seem light years away from the actual transfer rates these devices offer when really stressed.
The silver lining on the wireless cloud promises to be the 802.11n standard. As of now, details about the exact specifications are sketchy (there’s no formal draft as of today). What we do know is the intensity of signal will be much stronger than the current “g” standard. Also promised is nearly ten times the bandwidth—both the maximum theoretical and the typical (see table Wi-Fi Standards). If 802.11n realises this, we fully expect to see Wi-Fi penetration soar in our country as more and more people take the wireless plunge.
Contact Sheet Wireless Devices
|ASUS||ASUSTek Comp Incfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Buffalo||Advent Infotech Pvt. Ltdemail@example.com|
|Compex||Rashi Peripherals India Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|D-Link||D-Link India Ltdemail@example.com|
|Level One||Minds India Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Linksys||Ingram Micro India pvt. Ltdemail@example.com|
|Netgear||Rashi Peripherals India Pvt Ltdfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Senao||Rashi Peripherals India Pvt Ltdemail@example.com|